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Does Crantor hint to a revision of Plato's Timaeus?

Kilian Fleischer on the famous Proclus passage
about Crantor and Plato's Atlantis

Thorwald C. Franke
© 23 March 2024

Crantor in Egypt: The priests show him
the Atlantis story on stelai (Bing AI)

Kilian Fleischer is an expert for the preservation and restoration of ancient papyri. As such he is, e.g., involved in the restoration of the famous Herculaneum papyri, where he was successful in deciphering more material than in previous attempts. In a 2023 contribution for a volume titled The Making of the Platonic Corpus, Fleischer asks some questions typical for a papyrologist about the redaction history of Plato's Timaeus. In the following, I will present and comment these questions.

The Proclus passage and Fleischer's questions

Fleischer's starting point is the famous passage about Crantor and Plato's Atlantis in Proclus' commentary on the Timaeus:

"Some say that the story [logos] about everything connected with the Atlantines would be pure history [historia psile], as (e.g.) Plato's first commentator Crantor. This [Crantor] now says, that he [Plato] was mocked by the contemporaries, since he was not the creator of (his) constitution, but (only) the transcriber of (the constitution) of the Egyptians. He [Plato] cared so much about this (countering) word of the mockers, that he [Plato] traced back the story [historia] about the Athenians and Atlantines to the Egyptians, that the Athenians once lived according to this constitution. The priests of the Egyptians [prophetai] attest this, says he [Crantor!], by saying that this is written on still existing stelai."
(Proclus In Timaeum 24A f. or I 1,75 f.; translation and highlighting Thorwald C. Franke)

The conventional interpretation of this passage is this: Plato had written the Republic, then was mocked because of alleged similarities to the Egyptian constitution which made it look like an unoriginal plagiarism, and then Plato wrote the Timaeus-Critias with references to Egypt to counter the mockeries.

But Fleischer has questions:

Some interpretational mistakes of modern scholars must be clarified

Fleischer agrees with Heinz-Günther Nesselrath and Harold Tarrant, that Alan Cameron is wrong in seeing Plato instead of Crantor as the subject of the last sentence in the Proclus passage (pp. 153, 155 with footnote 12; cf. Nesselrath (2001) p. 34; Tarrant (2006) Vol. 1., p. 169 footnote 309 on Proclus In Timaeum 1,76). This is also my own opinion, that the subject of the last sentence must be Crantor, for grammatical reasons (cf. Franke (2016/2021) pp. 95 f.).

Fleischer has noticed what I observed myself, too, that Harold Tarrant's translations often are biased driven by silent assumptions, such as the assumption that Crantor allegedly did not believe in the existence of Plato's Atlantis (p. 153; cf. Franke (2016/2021) pp. 223-236). Therefore, Fleischer prefers translations of Nesselrath or John Dillon.

Fleischer agrees with Harold Tarrant, that the word "historia" itself is not necessarily a hint to a historical story in the context of Proclus' work. But with Nesselrath he concludes against Tarrant, that Crantor nevertheless talked of a historical story. This is also my own opinion. (p. 155; cf. Franke (2016/2021) p. 227 f.)

Fleischer correctly refers to Crantor as an "outstanding figure in the Academy": Crantor "would most probably have succeeded Polemo as scholarch" and he was "famous for this ethics" (p. 154). This is the traditional perspective on Crantor, and I agree with it. Unknowingly, Fleischer thus positioned himself against an opinion voiced by Nesselrath, who said about Crantor that he "was certainly not the most important figure in Plato's Academy" in order to denigrate the importance of Crantor's testimony (Nesselrath (2021) p. 2).

Fleischer does not discuss the meaning of the word anapempo, which means "tracing back to", "attribute to", "ascribe to" in this context, and not "imputing something to someone" or "sending to" or similar. This meaning has been clarified by Nesselrath against Festugière (Nesselrath (2001) p. 33 footnote 2). I have defended the same meaning against Harold Tarrant (cf. Franke (2016/2021) p. 229).

Whether Crantor's testimony in Proclus' commentary is trustworthy, or garbled?

Fleischer thoroughly discusses the possibility that Crantor's words may have reached Proclus only in a garbled way, by miswriting or by misunderstanding. While Plutarch may have had access to Crantor's original work, Proclus rather did not have direct access. But Fleischer does not see any strong hint to such a garbling and only suggests that we have to keep this problem in mind. (pp. 154 f.)

Fleischer discusses the possibility that the word anapempo for "tracing back" was inserted by Proclus, not by Crantor (p. 158).

How do we have to interpret Plato's reaction to the mockery?

Under the assumption that Crantor's testimony is trustworthy, and that there was this mockery: Which kind of mockery was it and how can we interpret Plato's reaction? Fleischer points to a typical wording for mockery in comedies, and that Plato was indeed mocked by comedy writers (p. 156).

On the basis of the assumptions that Plato's Atlantis story is an invention, and that the idea of Egyptian aspects in Plato's ideal state is absurd, Fleischer reaches the conclusion that Plato must have invented the Atlantis story as a sarcastic reaction to the mockery – with its reference to Egypt; or he attributed the already invented Atlantis story Egypt (p. 157 f.).

But here I have to insert criticism:

These assumptions are highly problematic! Quite obviously wrong is the idea that Egyptian aspects in Plato's constitution of the ideal state would be absurd. To the contrary! As scholars have repeatedly pointed out, there are striking similarities between Plato's ideas and Egyptian concepts. Cf. e.g. Susan Stephens: Plato's Egyptian Republic (2016), or: Peter Flegel: Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots? (2018), or: Ian C. Rutherford, Strictly Ballroom – Egyptian Mousike and Plato's Comparative Poetics (2013).

Whether the Atlantis story was merely an invention is also not as clear as the communis opinion, to which Fleischer refers, wishes it to be. While literary arguments fail time and again to establish a reliable interpretation as an invention, the possibility of a distorted historical tradition cannot be ruled out.

Fleischer's interpretation of the tracing back of the Atlantis story to the Egyptians as a sarcastic reaction to mockery is highly problematic. Because: Do we find such sarcasm in Plato's work? Rather not! And what would it have helped Plato, to do this? Would sarcasm have been a reasonable and powerful answer to the mockery? Certainly not! But putting forward reasons, why there are indeed similarities between Egypt and Plato's constitution of the ideal state: This would have been a powerful answer to the mockeries. And therefore, we find Sais described as a city once founded by goddess Athena, like Athens itself, and thus as a state with a similar constitution, which lost its ideal perfection over time. I strongly suggest to take this seriously, and not to see it as sarcasm.

While Fleischer knows of later authors who wrote about Atlantis and who believed in the historical truth of the story, he sees Crantor in a "unique position among early authors" with this belief (p. 154 footnote 9). But how does Fleischer know this? He nowhere presents any other early authors. He just assumes – erroneously – that there were other early authors who allegedly saw the Atlantis story as an invention.

It is almost strange, that Fleischer, while strongly assuming an invention of the Atlantis story, and while strongly assuming that other early authors did not share Crantor's position, firmly sticks to the opinion that Crantor believed in the historical truth of the Atlantis story (pp. 154, 159 with footnote 29). This combination provokes further questions, but Fleischer does not ask them.

Also completely strange is this sentence of Fleischer: "The question of the authenticity of the Atlantis story was already (implicitly) discussed in the second half of the fourth century, with almost everyone regarding it as a myth." (p. 64). The second half of the fourth century is 350-300 BC, i.e. including the first decades after Plato's death. It would be interesting to know which early authors Fleischer had in mind, but he does not say it. In my opinion, early authors rather had the opposite opinion, cf. e.g. Crantor and Theophrastus (about whom Fleischer is completely silent).

The category "myth" is also problematic. Early ancient authors might have considered Plato's Atlantis story an invention, but rather not a myth, since the story is presented as the opposite of a mythos in the Timaeus-Critias. Later authors have used the word, but in different meanings.

Does the "constitution" rather point to the Timaeus than to the Republic?

The core of Fleischer's consideration is the question whether the politeia, i.e. "constitution", which Plato traced back to the Egyptians, is actually pointing to the dialogue Politeia, i.e. Republic, or rather to the constitution, as described in the Republic, or rather to the Athenian constitution as described in the Timaeus (pp. 155 f.).

If to the Republic, this is the traditional reading. But Fleischer prefers a reading as "constitution", i.e. not the dialogue (p. 155 f.). But even in this case, the "constitution" could still be the constitution of the Republic.

If to the "constitution" of primeval Athens in the Atlantis story, then Plato might have added the Egyptian reference later, after the publication of the Atlantis story. Or, another possibility, he added the whole story to the cosmology of the Timaeus.

All these possibilities are viable, but Fleischer cannot find any striking evidence for any of these possibilities. In the end, the traditional reading does not seem so wrong.

I want to add my own thoughts here: It is also my opinion, that Plato had already written the cosmology of the Timaeus, and then added the preview of the Atlantis story and all the other redactional statements at the beginning of the Timaeus, which constitute the entire tetralogy of the four dialogues: A Republic-like Pre-Timaeus, the Timaeus, the Critias, and finally the Hermocrates. I conclude this mainly from the structure of the Timaeus: It is a complete dialogue about a complete topic, the cosmology, but with an added preview which organizes and announces the whole tetralogy. As "Sitz im Leben" I see the situation when Plato was called to Syracuse to educate Dionysius the Younger. The Timaeus-Critias is repeating on a rather "practical" level, what the Republic had developed on a theoretical level. More on this in a later publication.

Where did Crantor draw his knowledge about the mockery from?

Bound to his methodological scepticism, Fleischer asks the question whether Crantor actually had real information about mockery directed against Plato, or not. As Fleischer pointed out, such types of mockery against Plato did actually exist e.g. in comedies (p. 156). But it is possible that Crantor did not get to know about the alleged mockery against Plato from historical sources, but that he lighthandedly concluded from Plato's text itself that such a mockery existed. Lighthandedly drawing premature conclusions was not uncommon in ancient times (pp. 161 ff.).

At the beginning of the Timaeus, where the reference to Egypt is made, there is a sentence which looks like an excuse why the topic was not already brought up earlier when the ideal constitution had been developed in theory. It is especially this part, Critias is speaking: "I was reminded of what I’ve just told you and was quite amazed ... ... ... I didn’t want to say so at the time, though. It was so long ago, I didn’t remember Solon's story very well. So I realised that I would first have to recover the whole story for myself well enough, and then to tell it that way." (Timaeus 25e, 26a)

Fleischer now starts to discuss whether this excuse, including the reference to Egypt, could be a later insertion, and whether Crantor could have concluded to the mockery as the reason for this later insertion. Fleischer adds further speculations: Maybe Crantor found marginal notes from Plato or from Philip of Opus in manuscripts handed down in the academy? (p. 164)

Also Crantor's statement about the stelai, on which the Atlantis story was allegedly written, may have had its origin in such a wrong conclusion from Plato's text: Fleischer argues with a garbled conclusion based on the information about the stele made of orichalcum in the temple of Poseidon (p. 164). – A general discussion of this wrong idea of the Atlantis story written on stelai or temple walls, while in Plato's Timaeus-Critias it is quite clearly written on papyrus, can be found in my book about the history of Atlantis hypotheses (Franke (2016/2021) p. 96-99).

What Fleischer has overlooked is the turn in the plot at the beginning of the Timaeus: First, Socrates wants his interlocutors to invent an Atlantis-like story on the basis of their political competences. But then, Critias comes along and says that he has a historical story from Egypt to propose. And Socrates agrees: A real story is better than an invented story. This turn in the plot may also have had an influence on Crantor to believe that Plato wrote an Atlantis story without reference to Egypt first, and later changed his mind. We don't know this, of course. – Fleischer may have overlooked this turn in the plot since leading Atlantis sceptics usually ignore it. It is easier for them to ignore this turn in the plot than to explain it.

Though the lighthanded drawing of premature conclusions was not uncommon in ancient times, I do not think that any of these possibilities discussed by Fleischer is likely.


Kilian Fleischer's discussion has brought several insights:

  1. The confirmation of certain interpretations of the Proclus passage, and the rejection of certain modern interpretations, in the same way as I see it.

  2. Though Kilian Fleischer's discussion of the Proclus passage did not change much, and did not bring revolutionary new insights, at least not according to me, such a discussion is a gain in itself in mental flexibility: to think these questions through again, and from a different perspective, is always valuable.

  3. Last but not least we have seen that Kilian Fleischer relied on a series of ideas about Plato and Plato's Atlantis, which are currently communis opinion in academic scholarship, though they are utterly wrong or at least very one-sided and exaggerated:

This is not Fleischer's fault, since he relied on the products of current academic scholarship. Like other Atlantis sceptics, Fleischer is seduced to see irony or sarcasm in Plato's text, where there is none, because this is the only way to make sense of it under the weird assumption that the Atlantis story is just an invention.


Cameron (1983): Alan Cameron, Crantor and Posidonius on Atlantis, in: The Classical Quarterly CQ Vol. 33 No. 1 (1983); pp. 81-91.

Flegel (2018): Peter Flegel, Does Western Philosophy Have Egyptian Roots?, in: Philosophy Now Issue 128 (2018).

Fleischer (2023): Kilian Fleischer, Crantor of Soli as an Early Witness to a Revision of the Timaeus?, in: Olga Alieva / Debra Nails / Harold Tarrant (eds.), The Making of the Platonic Corpus, volume 6 of the series: Contexts of Ancient and Medieval Anthropology, Brill Schöningh / Koninklijke Brill NV, Paderborn 2023; pp. 152-165.

Franke (2012): Thorwald C. Franke, Aristotle and Atlantis – What did the philosopher really think about Plato's island empire?, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2016. German first edition was 2010.

Franke (2016/2021): Thorwald C. Franke, Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis – von der Antike über das Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, 2. edition, 2 volumes, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021. First edition was 2016.

Franke (2021): Thorwald C. Franke, Platonische Mythen – Was sie sind und was sie nicht sind – Von A wie Atlantis bis Z wie Zamolxis, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021.

Nesselrath (2001): Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Atlantis auf ägyptischen Stelen? Der Philosoph Krantor als Epigraphiker, in: Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik ZPE No. 135 (2001); pp. 33-35.

Nesselrath (2021): Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, On Praising Oneself and Bashing Others – A Response to Thorwald Franke's review of my talk News from Atlantis? Some recent proposals for the location of Plato's mysterious island of 2017. Please note: Not available in libraries., available since 21 March 2021.

Rutherford (2013): Ian C. Rutherford, Strictly Ballroom – Egyptian Mousike and Plato's Comparative Poetics, chapter three in: Anastasia-Erasmia Peponi (ed.), Performance and Culture in Plato's Laws, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York / etc. 2013; pp. 67-83.

Stephens (2016): Susan Stephens, Plato's Egyptian Republic, chapter 2 in: Ian C. Rutherford (ed.), Greco-Egyptian Interactions – Literature, Translation, and Culture, 500 BCE-300 CE, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016; pp. 41-59.

Tarrant (2006): Harold Tarrant, Proclus – Commentary on Plato's Timaeus, Vol. 1., edited and translated by Harold Tarrant, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge / New York 2006. First published in print format 2007.        Contents Overview
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